I’m in the back seat of a radio taxi in southern Poland going to see a guy who put together a choir made up of football hooligans.
When I see smoke from a steelworks factory, I know I’m in the right place. The guy I’m supposed to meet–his name is George–works in a small town called Nowa Huta. Here the air smells like rubber tires. A few swatches of cloud cover the sunset this evening, but technicolor red and orange shades burn through. I’ve heard pollution intensifies the colors in sunsets, and this one is gorgeous.
This is my fifth year in Poland, and I’m doing research about young people and crime in central Europe. That’s why I want to visit George in Nowa Huta.
Besides having one of the world’s worst environmental records, Nowa Huta is a breeding ground for hooligans, skinheads, punks, and “marginal ones,” as Communists once called them. George is a local talk-show host. He did a show last week on “Aggression.” This week’s topic is “Capitalism.”
The two seem to go together. Poland has a growing GDP, a booming real-estate market, and a crime rate that jumped 62 percent from 1989 to 1990, the year a free market was introduced.
George shows up wearing an enormous gold belt buckle and loads of musky cologne. If it were a few degrees warmer, George would’ve had his Levi’s shirt unbuttoned to his navel. He calls me “Sunshine” and brushes his hand across my wrist. I know his type. He’s over 50, at least. Married. He’s a Silver Fox, a smarmy guy. I point out, nervously, that he’s got three padded doors leading to his office. I’m not sure I want to be alone with him.
Yet George has managed to seduce two of Poland’s warring subcultures–punks and skinheads–into performing Romeo and Juliet. Romeo is a punk; Juliet, a skinhead. He did a 16th-century morality play with a cast of junkies.
George offers me a chair and shows me three snapshots of mentally handicapped people in Mainz, Germany, that could have come from a Diane Arbus collection. In one picture, George is shown grinning like a fool. He’s in a blue tank top, and he’s got his hands on everybody within reach.
That’s when I realize George is the genuine article. You can’t fake a scene like that. I still think he’s smarmy. But now I know he’s got a rapport with “marginal ones” that I can only envy.